Talisman Gate

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Human Torpedo

May 31, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Human Torpedo

May 31, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/33630

Meet Mahmoud.

Mahmoud would merely register as a statistical blip on a population chart somewhere, but this make-believe character - a 15 year-old, upper-middle-class Egyptian that I constructed in my head - is going to matter a great deal in a decade's time. He may be the next president of Egypt, or he may turn out to be a suicide bomber.

In the last couple of weeks, policy has perceptibly shifted in Washington. While the Bush administration claims that it is sticking to the "democracy in the Middle East equals stability" talking points, its actions indicate otherwise. Even though Mahmoud has not fully absorbed the implications, those changes will play an important role in forming his political consciousness. In fact, they may map out his trajectory from teenager to murderous fireball.

First things first, keep in mind that there are more teenagers carrying the generically Muslim name of Mahmoud than had ever existed throughout Islamic history. Our Mahmoud is one among many millions in this massive demographic wave, and here is a sketch of his fictional past, present, and potential.

By Egyptian standards, Mahmoud's family is well off. They live in a concrete high-rise rising out of the Muhandiseen neighborhood, and occupy a well proportioned apartment. It is a good place as any in Cairo to raise a family. There is plenty of fun and distraction for Mahmoud and his coterie of buddies at the private school that he attends. Their command of foreign languages is pretty good, and that opens them up to worlds far beyond their own through the Internet and satellite TV. They sing along to Arctic Monkeys hits, and watch pirated copies of the hit show "Lost" on their DVD players. But they don't need to go very far to exercise teenage curiosities; the Arabic music channels can go head to head with anything MTV dishes out by way of what his teachers at school would call depravity.

His father is a physician, like his father before him. Mahmoud's grandfather hailed from a village somewhere in Upper Egypt, and was the first among his family to enroll in one of the state's secular public schools, surmounting the qualms of his own father, who acted as the local Muslim religious sheikh. But the grandfather went on to earn a state scholarship to France, and came back to Egypt as one of those starry-eyed nationalists eager to make something grand of their country. After a couple of false starts and messy riots, Mahmoud's grandfather hoped that Egypt's rebirth would happen in his son's life. Mahmoud's father has resigned himself to placing similar hopes on Mahmoud.

In the last couple of years, Mahmoud had seen his father attend Friday prayers more regularly. Even his mother decided to put on the hijab last year, finally caving in to peer pressure at the government ministry where she works as an archivist, all the while rationalizing her move as finding no conflict between religiosity and progressiveness. When Mahmoud looks through family albums of his mom and dad in the 1970s, he is amused by their bellbottoms and attire of the era.

His older brother graduated as an engineer a couple of years back, but still can't find a job. He passes his time at a nearby cafe smoking a water pipe and commiserating with his friends over how some other classmates bribed their way to better grades and had uncles with some pull in the system. His sister, a pharmacist by training, is similarly unemployed and sits at home moping around for something to do until the love of her life lands a job and puts down an advance on an apartment - necessary steps before there can be any talk of marriage.

Lately, Mahmoud is more mindful of the fact that his family is not keeping up appearances. His cell phone is a 3 year-old hand-me-down that doesn't even have a camera. He begged for an iPod for his birthday, but got a couple of shirts instead. The family car is a decade old, and his father doesn't seem to be getting ahead at the government-run hospital where he works. Meanwhile, his schoolmates whose fathers are National Party big shots or well-connected businessmen are showing off their brand new PSPs.

He overheard his parents talking last September about voting for Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate. But Nour is now in prison and the Great Leader's son and projected heir, Jamal, seems to have been anointed as the heir apparent by the White House during a recent visit. Mahmoud caught part of a program on Aljazeera last week that gleefully declared that President Bush has betrayed the liberals and democrats in the Middle East. His father, who had been watching the same show, made up his mind to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the next election - if there is another election.

On the school bus, everyone turned around to take stock of a huge armored anti-riot truck, probably paid for by American taxpayer money. But somebody dismissively said "big deal" and whipped out his cell phone to show everyone footage of a Humvee being blown to bits in Iraq; so much for American armor. Another kid boasted that his cousins live in the same apartment building where Muhammad Atta, the September 11 terrorist, grew up.

Then the guy with the cell phone made them listen to a song about the resistance in Fallouja. Mahmoud couldn't make out all the words, but there was something in there about "Israel" and the crusades, as well as Arab honor. He hears these words a lot in religion class from his teachers and conjugates verbs with them in Arabic grammar exercises. Something about those words struck a nerve, and the macabre-curious nature of a teenager took him further towards downloading grizzly beheadings and close-ups of corpses belonging to - as the Al-Qaeda video said - "traitors."

Over the next decade, Mahmoud will follow in the family tradition and graduate. He will not find a job. His brother works as a lowly mechanic, and is thought of as someone "who lucked out." His sister is still unmarried. Mahmoud will mock his parents for putting stock in the Muslim Brotherhood; "they are pansies who think they can reform the system," he tells them. The clunker that is the family car is still around. He would arrive into adulthood fully aware that he is not surrounded by the trappings of glamorous success. His neighborhood, once moderately affluent, is slipping down the economic ladder as those who can afford it head out to gated suburbs with names such as "City View."

Watching TV, Mahmoud would probably catch a glimpse of President Jamal Mubarak, in Washington again, pledging his country's continuing support in the war on terror that now engulfs Egypt, the Middle East and most of Europe. Mahmoud will keep downloading jihadist footage, contemplating the day when he is lionized by Al Qaeda's propaganda as a "martyr." One day, as his father tarries at the mosque while chatting with some friends after Friday prayers, Mahmoud will be spotted by a terrorist recruiter.

Mahmoud is fully primed to become a human torpedo - targeting the West and anything associated with it. He is educated, embittered, and has no where to go in the closed political and economic system of Egypt's autocracy. All Al-Qaeda needs to do is tailor a bomb vest for him, or teach him how to make one on his own.

If you do run into Mahmoud sometime in the future, run away.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

May 31, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What About the Druze?

May 16, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

What About the Druze?

May 16, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/32823

Senator Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, recently suggested a plan for fixing Iraq by breaking it apart. He says he wants to give the various ethnic and religious components of Iraq "some breathing space." But what about everyone else in the Middle East who is gasping for air? Fragmenting a country as focal as Iraq sets an intriguing precedent for the entire region: it is an admission that the post-World War I security arrangement arrived at by former colonial bureaucrats while dismembering the Ottoman Empire has failed, and that a radical reappraisal in the direction of matching borders to strongly held identities should be made.

Mr. Biden is running for president, and there's an element of political showmanship in his plan. However, it is a fresh look at a seemingly intractable problem. I like this approach, and have been considering it myself for a while, but what applies to Iraq has to apply to the Middle East, for Iraq today is the incubator of general fixes for the wider region. Superficially, the plan works great, but only to a certain point - for I am always stumped by the question, "What about the Druze?"

A thousand years ago, a Fatimid caliph by the name of Al-Hakim went crazy in Cairo, and as a result, we have between 400,000 to 800,000 people calling themselves Muwahhidoon in the Middle East today. They are better known as the Druze. Al-Hakim decided that he was more supreme in divinity than Allah. Apart from the renovated grand mosque bearing Al-Hakim's name in Cairo, very little of his legacy remains in our day, except that, somewhere near Aleppo and the hills west of Mount Hermon, some people took his proselytizers at their word, and converted.

Today, they are divided over four countries - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel - where they should constitute no more than numerical blips in the crowded field of idiosyncratic local identities. But no one can mention Lebanese politics without taking note of one their top chieftains, Walid Jumblatt. The first prime minister of an independent Jordan was a Druze, and the Druze had the gall to attempt to seize power through a military coup in the turbulent 1960s roiling Syria. Several of their equal modern-day numbers in the Israeli army have reached the rank of general.

During the Lebanese civil war, Jumblatt tried some ethnic cleansing of his own in the hope of breaking off with a chunk of territory and calling it a principality. But his problem was that the Druze lived in two separate lobes on Lebanese territory, and that uniting these areas would entail far more bloodshed that he could set in motion. And that did not solve the issue of hooking up with the much larger Druze population center of the Horan highlands, where the French, in a Biden-like strategy, had tried to establish an independent state for the Druze in the early mandate years.

The survival of the Druze, and their political importance, are just one of a multitude of things about the Middle East that don't fit into a rational framework. Politicians such as Mr. Biden can leisurely contemplate drawing neat lines on the map, just like the colonial bureaucrats did, but will it translate into security?

Iraq can be broken up in three stand-alone states. Syria into four. Iran looks less menacing as five separate entities, with a few city-states, such as Isfahan, going their own way. Saudi Arabia makes much more sense in five parts, with the Wahhabis isolated in the energy-poor desolation of Nejd, where they began 80 years ago. Kurdish guerillas have fought Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian troops for decades in pursuit of the dream of independence, and under the Biden Plan, they would finally get their Kurdistan. Egypt is a little trickier because of communal overlap, so maybe the best solution is to carve out a national home for the Copts, somewhere in the fertile Delta, and ideally on the Suez Canal. Maybe something similar can be done for the Alevis of Turkey. Is cutting and pasting the Middle East so bad of a prospect?

But how would a Druze state manage itself and what would it live on? A Palestinian state is supposed to emerge from similarly disjointed fragments of land. With new technologies, the fact that Druze are dispersed here and there should not be such a challenge. Can a sovereign government function through teleconferencing?

It is not only a logistical challenge, for just as the fact that the Druze survived and prospered over a millennium does not add up, there are other factors to worry about. What about the fact that Arab Shias from Najaf hate other Shias from Karbala? What about the fact the Sunni Tikritis loathe those Sunni Samara'is to their immediate south? And why is it that a Kurdish Sunni gentleman from the Mizuri tribe, and who follows the Naqshbandi Sufi rite and speaks in the Bahdinani dialect, would be reluctant to give his daughter's hand to a Sunni Kurdish Jaff tribesman who belongs to the Qadiri Sufi order and speaks in the Sorani dialect?

Once people who don't like each for what they believe in or where they come from decide that they can no longer live together, and need space apart, then the Middle East will be in greater trouble that it currently is in. By that measure, traveling the six hour journey from Baghdad to Basra would require applying for six different visas and crossing six different borders. Even crossing from one neighborhood into another would involve international law. It's reminiscent of the time when an English lady, Gertrude Bell, set out in the beginning of the 19th century to explore the Middle East and had to seek the benevolence of every tribal sheikh into whose territory she wandered.

She was responsible for creating Iraq in its present form. She must have realized that in carving up the former domains of the Ottoman Empire, there would be a limit to atomization, and that at one point, groups of people, whether they be tribes, neighborhoods, towns, sects or religions, needed to get along and find a common unifying identity. She did not live to see what local spin-offs on Fascism, and the Cold War, as well as the curse of oil wealth, did to her creation. She certainly did not foresee that present day jihadists would set out to forcefully reunify all the former lands that constituted the Ottoman Empire and some other realms under a caliphate.

Either the nation states created by the likes of Bell are made to function properly, or it is time to carve-up and create new smaller states. Mr. Biden's proposal in Iraq was probably not thought out in terms of how it could fix the larger Middle East, but Iraq is the model for all the others. What fails - or works - will be the rest of the region's future. Any grand restructuring has to be careful that the finished project does not end up like a do-it-yourself project with extra nails, screws, and parts that were part of the original design but were somehow left over after completion. The Druze, as well as other historic, cultural and political anomalies, are too relevant to be dismissed.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Niche vs. Mainstream

May 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Niche vs. Mainstream

May 9, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/32411

The world heard recently from the top three global jihadists out there: Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, and Ayman Zawahiri, each released propaganda tracts that had analysts scurrying to explain the significance of their timing and wording. Much was made of what has been self-evident for a while: the leaders of terror are competing for top billing.

Although Bin Laden still claims place of pride among them, there is a question mark as to who takes over after his demise. It is less a struggle between personalities than a struggle over strategies: the older generation of Bin Laden and Zawahiri believe that jihad should commence from the periphery of the Islamic world and proceed to the center, while younger hotheads like Zarqawi argue that the ground is ripe to strike at the very heart of the Middle East.

Al Qaeda's initial strategy throughout the 1980s and 1990s was to seize upon popular issues such as rolling back the indignities done to the Islamic world at the outlying points of the former empire. It was a fight to stem the loss of ground, a process that had been going on for the last three centuries. The would-be jihadists as well as sympathetic funds and state-sponsorship were beckoned to places such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, and the southern Sudan. At these far-away frontiers, the spirit of the ghazi - the warrior who forays deep into the land of the infidels and strikes fear into their hearts - was supposed to be reawakened. Then these young men were to coalesce as the vanguard of the caliphate, who would victoriously march back into the center of Islam, toppling the many tyrants in their way.

It is very much in this vein that Bin Laden's delivers his latest audio message in a tired and scratchy voice, where he calls upon the angry young men of Islam to head towards the Sudan again and fight for Darfur. Similarly Zawahiri, in a video clip, packs his punches for Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf.

In Bin Laden's eyes, the "Crusader enemy" is fomenting trouble in Darfur for the purpose of enabling the Christians and animists of the southern Sudan to roll back millennia-old Arab and Muslim conquests. To Zawahiri, Musharraf is a traitor who is undermining Pakistan's national security, which is somehow part of an American-Zionist plan in aid of Hindu expansionism. Zawahiri glosses over the sins of the Arab rulers and directs his message to the officers and soldiers of the Pakistani armed services and instructs them to topple the strongman. His 16-minute video even had well-written English subtitles (produced by a jihadist outfit calling itself As-Sahab Media Productions), which seems to be a nod to the English fluency of most of Pakistan's officer class. At one point, Zawahiri even pronounced "enlightened moderation" in English to ridicule Musharraf's "new faith" of "Islam without jihad."

Riding horseback into the bushes of red-sanded Darfur? Following the goat trails up the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains? Bin Laden's and Zawahiri's target audience of young Arabs and Muslims is no longer moved by the romance of frontier fighting. There is a jihadist travel agency that promises even a bigger adventure: killing American soldiers in Iraq, with the option of bringing down hated tyrants and opening up a front onto Israel. Zarqawi enters the picture as someone who can make this fantasy possible, and his promotional 34-minute video was all about that.

There are three very curious scenes in the Zarqawi video: when giving his speech, he is seated cross-legged next to a paratrooper Kalashnikov that is propped up against a wall to his right, very much like former videos of Zawahiri that were released over the last two years. In another shot, Zarqawi is seen surrounded by masked gunmen while "inspecting" his troops in Anbar Province. This evokes the images of a younger Bin Laden doing pretty much the same thing in Afghanistan. In those images, we also see Bin Laden firing a Kalashnikov, while Zarqawi one-ups him by firing an American-made heavy machine gun - empting two magazines with what seems to be a steady grip. In these three scenes, Zarqawi is visually comparing himself to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, two men he is verbally deferential to. But the comparison is not lost on all the young watchers out there, who are fascinated by fancy-looking "toys" such as rifles and rocket-launchers and the confidence on display by the jihadists.

In one of Al Qaeda's anthems from the late 1990s, one verse states that "Kabul is our raised sword in the foreign land," while the chorus repeats "we will fold up the space" between those foreign lands and the very heart of Islam: Mecca and Medina in present day Saudi Arabia. After he is done shooting, Zarqawi turns to the camera and says, "By God, America will be defeated in Iraq" while earlier in his speech he claimed that "we are fighting in Iraq while our eyes are on Jerusalem." Zarqawi is branding his own strategy for a jihad to young Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians as something that can be done in their own backyard. He is selling the idea that the jihadists succeeded in wearing down the strongest army in the world even in a hostile land where the Americans have many willing Iraqi "spies" and that this formula can be repeated elsewhere closer to home.

While Bin Laden and Zawahiri have been reduced to peddling their wares on Sudanese and Pakistani customers, the market of mainstream jihad has been ceded to an ambitious start-up run by a younger upstart. The old-timers can only offer jihad in a niche market, a sort of excursion to a boutique country getaway. Zarqawi offers the real thing, the chance to be part of what he calls the "nucleus of an Islamic state." His project is far more ambitious, and he is challenging the careful approach of Bin Laden and Zawahiri, two men who are in hiding somewhere in a mountain crevice while he prowls the open plains of Mesopotamia.

Sunni bitterness over losing power, as well as American ineptitude and bad luck, gave Zarqawi his big break in Iraq. He was a nobody in the jihadist world, just another flunky who had shown up too late for the fight in Afghanistan. His meteoric rise was sudden, and the Bin Laden and Zawahiri are correct in their cautious distrust of such rapid fortunes. Zarqawi takes too many chances, and will get caught or killed sooner rather than later, but his ambitious legacy will survive him: there is a large pool of jihadists in Iraq who think it is possible to expand the fight into the very heart of the Middle East, and they are setting up shop in Damascus, Beirut, Gaza, Sinai, and Jordan. They intend to create a margin of instability in these lands that would give them the breathing space to perform what would be the most sought-after goal in jihadist fantasies: destroying Israel.

If anything, the recent wave of propaganda tells us that the jihadists represented by Zarqawi have eclipsed the stale strategies laid out by has-beens like Bin Laden. The battlefield will no longer stretch into obscure and forgotten recesses of the globe, but rather the fire will burn at the very toes of global strategic interests. The world must prepare for the consequences of this shift in jihadist strategy.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

May 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >